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Almost dressed up and nowhere to go
Local Government Chronicle – 1 April 2005

Transport chiefs are eyeing Ken Livingstone's sweeping powers over the London bus system with envy. What can they do to catch up? Mark Smulian reports

Council licensing departments assumed there would be a deluge of applications on 7 February, when they took over responsibility for personal and premises licences for alcohol sales, pub opening extensions, and late-night restaurants and takeaways.

Warnings were rife of 24-hour drinking - and drunkenness - the length of the land, and many councils took on extra staff to process licence applications. But nearly two months later, with rare exceptions, almost nothing has happened.

Even Manchester, a renowned centre for nightlife, had no applications for opening hours extensions by the middle of last month, which it attributes in part to the baffling forms that must be completed.

What happened? Councils blame bizarre decisions and errors by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, which oversees the licensing system.

There are two crucial deadlines. To take advantage of the straightforward conversion of an existing licence to a new one, applications must be made by 6 August, and take effect in November.

Variations to licences, applications for wholly new ones, and applications for previously unlicensed late food service, must be made in time to take effect in November, allowing for around two months of statutory advertising and consideration.

Thus the first deadline is likely to generate a heap of applications in July, and the second a fresh torrent in late August.

It was always likely that busy applicants would leave things to the last minute, even if they were aware of the changes, but the actions of the DCMS appear to have exacerbated this by hampering anyone who did wish to apply early.

The first problem came when the department proposed licence fee levels so low the Local Government Association estimated councils would collectively be 41m out of pocket Faced with the charge that it expected council taxpayers to subsidise the drinks industry, the department relented to the extent the association expects only a 30m shortfall (LGC, 28 January).

This was followed by the saga of the missing Mondays. Licensees must use official application forms, but those on the department website in January omitted Monday opening times, were littered with errors and were consequently unusable.

A department spokesman said these had been only guides, and that it was always clear final versions would come later. What came, at 8pm on 4 February - 52 hours before the new system began - was a vast online form that could not be filled in electronically.

The department failed to provide any translations of this - not even into Welsh - a serious issue for councils where many proprietors of food outlets have a limited command of English.

The department's eccentricities have exasperated officers and have left councillors scared.

The Licensing Act 2003 specifies, for reasons that remain opaque, a maximum of 15 councillors on a licensing committee, regardless of the council's size.

This means that when the summer peak of applications comes, panels drawn from among these 15 unfortunates could be in almost continuous session.

It was all meant to be different. Councils saw the act as a good thing, giving them the tools to reconcile the demands of the night-time economy with residents' concerns about noise and disorder. This meant community objectives could feed into their licensing policies, perhaps deciding whether pubs could remain open after 11pm, or that a particular area could not cope with more pubs.

Oxford City Council, for example, is likely to reject applications in its central area, as it believes there are already ample pubs and clubs. North Norfolk DC, by contrast, says it "wishes to encourage licensees to provide a wide range of entertainment activities . . . and to promote live music, dance and theatre".

Another new power was that, for the first time outside London, takeaways and restaurants open after 11pm would need licences, whether or not they already had an alcohol licence.

Around the country, licensing officers who geared up for February are waiting with some trepidation for the onslaught of applications.

Jim Hunter, licensing manager at Taunton Deane BC and vice-chair of the Institute of Licensing, says: "We fear a deluge of applications in the summer and that will affect both officers and councillors. Councils staffed up to meet applications at the start [of the process] in February. I am not saying the staff recruited are doing nothing, but they have had to be found other work."

Even the increase in fees came with a sting in the tail. Mr Hunter says: "It is still very confusing. The two fee documents have to be read with each other rather than the newer one replacing the old one. I am not impressed with DCMS. Everything has been very hard going."

The likelihood of summer chaos has been increased, he says, because people who need the new licences are reluctant to smooth the flow by applying early because of the way the department framed the rules.

Licences must be renewed 12 months on from when they were granted but only take effect in November, leaving early applicants with just a few months' validity before their renewal date comes around.

The licensed trade's thunderous silence in Manchester came because "they have not had time to complete the forms [which] came out late, and the trade was put off by adverse publicity around 24-hour drinking", says Manchester City Council licensing manager John Pullan.

"The indications are that people are at most looking for an extra hour or so at weekends."

Mr Pullan says applications from late-opening food outlets have been equally scarce. "The forms are very confusing, at 20 pages plus plans and enclosures, and the lack of minority languages could be a difficulty," he adds.

"We are visiting 30 takeaways a week to alert them to what is happening."

Manchester anticipates trouble from the 15-councillor limit, as it assumes at least 20% of applications will meet objections and so need a full hearing.

Yvonne Lewis, licensing team leader at Vale of Glamorgan Council, fears "a big logjam in the summer".

She says: "I tried to predict staffing to meet the peaks, which I thought would come at the beginning and end, but now I can see it will all come at the end."

Applications for continuing licences are granted automatically if the council fails to decide them within two months, while those for new licences are automatically rejected if undecided in two months.

Ms Lewis fears that almost all automatic rejections will go to appeal, where councils must bear the costs.

Rossendale BC has formed a partnership with its neighbours Burnley BC and Pendle BC because the costs of a full licensing service are onerous for small councils. Rossendale BC licensing manager Craig Fairbrother has found problems caused by lack of awareness. "Registered clubs which provided entertainment in the past did not need a licence as it was an exemption, and a lot of them do not realise that they now need to apply for a variation to their liquor licence for entertainments," he says.

Restaurants licensed to serve alcohol do not realise they need a licence now to serve food after 11pm.

"You try telling someone who has run a restaurant for 20 years that he needs a licence variation to serve food," Mr Fairbrother remarks ruefully.

Westminster City Council, which has 3,600 licensed premises in its area, took on extra staff for February but a spokesman says: "It is chaos delayed rather than chaos averted", with very few applications received.

He adds: "You would have to be on Mars not to know this was going on, and we assume people want their licences, so we think the delay is down to the complexity of the forms.

"They are not easy things to fill in and ask for a lot of information just to covert a licence, never mind vary one."

A department spokesman admitted: "The forms were late but we needed to get them right. The drafts went up a long time in advance and we made it clear that they could be used as a basis for planning.

"We are talking about a transition of six months and we think they are easy to use."

It's all enough to drive officers and councillors to drink.